TIJUANA, Mexico -- With a vial of crack cocaine teetering between her fingers, a glassy-eyed woman pauses while rummaging through a pile of trash near the U.S.-Mexico border, mesmerized by the morning traffic.
Nearby, a man in his 20s sits on the curb behind a parked pickup and lights a vial with a tiny white rock inside. A police car passes as he inhales. A forgotten hypodermic needle rests on the truck's tire.
Others shuffle by, their clothes and faces dirty as they awaken on a recent midmorning from sidewalks, abandoned houses and cars. Several approach an American reporter and photographer, wondering if they are potential customers for their goods -- crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
"Looking for anything special?" they ask in broken English.
This is the heart of Tijuana's drug district -- the street called Ninos Heroes, or Child Heroes, a noble name for a place where Mexico's youth waste away smoking and shooting up on the curbs as traffic passes by.
Long a transit country where drugs passed through to an insatiable U.S. market, Mexico has seen addictions to hard drugs skyrocket over the past decade.
Now, officials fear tightened U.S. border security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may exacerbate the problem as smugglers try to sell their undelivered loads locally.
Mexican cities along the U.S. border already lead the country's drug use as traffickers pay their transporters in drugs rather than money.
Tijuana has the highest consumption of illegal drugs in the country -- three times the national average, according to the government. The border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Matamoros are close behind.
"We are watching what's happening on the border very carefully," said Edward Jurith, the U.S. drug czar, during his visit to Mexico last week.
Recovered heroin addict Jose Luis Avalos, who runs a drug rehabilitation center in Tijuana, said the longer the U.S. government seals the border, the more dealers will be looking to the domestic market as an alternative.
"We already have the problem but it can get worse," he said.
Experts say Mexican border cities can't handle the problem as it is.
Drug rehabilitation centers have grown rapidly in Tijuana over the past five years, with more than 70 centers housing some 3,500 addicts. Another 2,500 are outpatients.
Avalos' group, the Integral Recovery Center for Alcoholic and Drug Addicts, is considered among the best. State human rights prosecutor Raul Ramirez said abuses abound at some other centers. There have been cases of addicts being beaten to death, chained to walls and denied food in the name of discipline.
Several people have died while in rehabilitation in the past few years, including some who did not receive appropriate medical care after overdosing, Ramirez said
"A lot of the people running these centers are former drug addicts who have little education or training," he said. "Addicts have entered these centers against their will, brought by their families who don't want to deal with them any longer. They've been tortured, put into isolation -- and this is just what we know of those who have managed to escape."
Ramirez blames the government for not doing enough for addicts. The failure to clean up corruption has fueled the problem, he said.
"The police know where the drugs are being produced, where the heroin, the cocaine are being distributed. They go by each week and get paid themselves," Ramirez said. "The problem is extraordinarily complex."
Police deny involvement, but users say they pay officers to leave them alone.
Ninos Heroes is only a few blocks from a police station and the city's tourist zone. Most addicts congregate where the street runs into the International Highway along the border.
Fernando Enriquez sits on the curb, dazed and smiling. The 22-year-old lives in an abandoned house with a skinny dog that he hugs while it nips at its mottled coat.
"I learned my English selling crack to Americans," Enriquez said, sitting next to a blond, blue-eyed woman from Oceanside, Calif. She said she had been living on Tijuana's streets for five years.
Among Enriquez's customers are tourists from California who cross the border for the lower prices on crack, heroin and methamphetamines, which sell for less than $5 a hit.
When Enriquez hasn't got drugs to sell, he works as a prostitute. At the worst times, he eats trash and begs.